Don’t confuse Wikileaks with journalism

265902-wikileaks

The media is agog about the wonders of Wikileaks – but Sam Sole explains that what it is actually doing is not revolutionary or unique, in a story originally published in The Media magazine.

There have been some extravagant claims made about the way in which Wikileaks has changed the face of journalism. They are ill considered.

Leaks are one of the feedstocks of journalism, but they are not its defining characteristic.

Indeed, in South Africa, the undiscriminating way in which lazy journalists have treated leaks – the way in which they may have been used to manipulate the media – has been a legitimate criticism of journalistic standards.

What Wikileaks has done is simply tout for leaks on a global scale, but until Private Bradley Manning came along, its impact on the global information and media landscape had been rather limited.

The leaks that have had major impact – those on Afghanistan, Iraq and the US diplomatic cables – have all had a single source – Manning – and a security breach on that scale is unlikely to be repeated too soon.

That is not to say that setting up a secure means of receiving and publishing confidential material of major public interest is a bad idea. But it’s not journalism and it doesn’t replace journalism.

Even Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ founder and primary theorist, admitted that the website failed to make the impact it expected when it simply posted unmediated source material. People simply did not bother to wade through it to discover the salient and valuable aspects. Assange found that the website had to go through the material and create pointers, guides and highlights to make it more accessible.

When Wikileaks did this, it became not just a postbox but a publisher, with the rights and responsibilities that go with that.

That Assange learned his lesson is clear from the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to deal with the very large volume of material supplied by Manning. He has realised that people do not have the time and interest to go through the raw data, so he has contracted with a number of news organisations to receive the information and process and publish it journalistically.

It is clear that 99% of people’s knowledge of what is in the Wikileaks data will come from these mediated sources, not from the raw data.

Assange has made much of the quaint notion of ‘scientific journalism’, which gives readers access to the source material on which the story is based. This is hardly revolutionary. Many news sites provide scans of key documents, particularly those related to controversial stories.

But documents on their own are not enough. Nowadays, they are quite easy to forge. And often, they prove nothing more than the attitude of their compilers. What the US diplomatic cables show in relation to their reports from around the world is no more than what US diplomats believed to be true or likely. The fact that, by and large, they accord with an informed view of their subjects, is merely testimony to the fact that, despite much wishful thinking about the collapse of the American empire, the US State Department runs a pretty competent ship.

And, of course, many of the reports been met with vigorous denials – which proper journalism would be obliged to penetrate, were the allegations important enough.

Assange’s claim to be practicing a kind of journalism brings with it another responsibility: that of source protection and source management.

The fact that poor Private Manning has been so effectively identified suggests the management of his future got rather lost in Wikileaks’ excitement about what he gave them.

Again, experienced journalists will tell you that sources often have a hazy idea of the risks they are taking and how to minimise them. The journalist will usually have much more experience of this danger than the source and will have to take some responsibility for helping to protect that source.

Often this involves NOT publishing documents, merely alluding to the information contained in them, or publishing only a selection that might have a number of possible sources. Sometimes it means not publishing a story at all.

As we have discovered in South Africa, the unwary publication of leaked material is also highly open to manipulation. Now that Wikileaks has shown itself to be an effective megaphone, it will be a target of such efforts. Indeed, the more paranoid among us have already dismissed the current leaks as a CIA plot to consolidate anti-Iranian sentiment.

There is also something to be said for the traditional journalistic inquiry as to the agenda of a source. Assange is, of course, a secondary source for the material he publishes, but he is the person in primary control of the material.

Like many sources, he has made something of a bid to set the terms of the engagement with media publishers, though not unreasonably so.

But I think we will find, as journalists have found throughout the history of the profession, that allowing a source to control the story is not a good idea.

But there is more to be said about the broad Wikileaks agenda. To begin with, leakage is inherently asymmetrical. Leaks are more likely to come from societies that enjoy a degree of openness and less likely to come from societies that are closed and authoritarian.

In interviews, Assange has skipped around this reality, saying he would publish leaks from China and Russia if he got them. But the point is, he is much less likely to get them, because access to information is tightly controlled in those societies and the penalties for disclosure so much more severe.

So, to the extent that major leaks cause damage, they will more likely damage more open societies and possibly openness itself.

This is not to say that leaks should not published, but that a considered decision needs to be taken about the costs and benefits attached to particular leaks and the way they are handled. And a debate should be had about the issue of targeting proactive attempts to gain access to confidential information.

In that regard, Wikileaks – and especially Assange himself – has betrayed a rather overblown regard of its own grand anti-imperialist aspirations.

In that sense, while the argument that the leaks have not done any real demonstrable harm is correct, the furious reaction from the USA and its allies is not entirely unjustified. They view Assange, correctly, as being engaged in an attack on ‘the system’ itself or, as Assange has termed it, the “conspiracy”.

As Assange put it in his essay, State and Terrorist Conspiracies: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”

So leaks are really a way not to promote accountability, or promote reform; they are a way of attacking the “conspiracy” itself and making it more vulnerable. But vulnerable to what?

Assange suggests a ludicrously naïve answer.

He argues: “Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

This kind of thinking is worthy of Donald Rumsfeld.

Leaking is NOT easy – specifically not in secretive and unjust systems.

It’s much easier in systems that do, in fact, try to maintain a level of accountability – even if only internally.

What is truly remarkable about the Iraqi war logs, for instance, is the level of reporting and control that the USA has maintained during an unjust and unpopular war.

A more secretive and unjust system would not bother, because the kind of information that made headlines is simply not vital to the blunt conduct of warfare.

What Assange and his uncritical supporters do not consider when they celebrate blows against the US Imperium is what consequences these blows may have and, if we are truly witnessing the collapse of the empire, how we manage that collapse so that what comes next is not much worse.

To believe that the exercise of power can be somehow cleverly cut off from the pursuit of secrecy is to misunderstand the nature of power and social organisation itself.

Al-Qaeda has shown that conspiracy is able to function quite well in a distributed environment, provided it has a common guiding principle. So can organised crime…

The choice may not be between the empire and its corporate accomplices versus some kind of utopian ‘global village’ democracy, but between managing a messy and imperfect order versus inviting in the forces of chaos.

This story was first published in the March 2011 issue of The Media magazine.

  • Hedley Heale

    Hi Sam,
     I can see why Wikileaks exists because you are writing as if Bradley Manning has been charged and convicted of a crime. The facts are that he has not been charged yet and is still being held in solitary confinement conditions that look as though the US has downloaded a copy of the old RSA BOSS manual  on how to torture people until they confess to anything. If you and your fellow journalists did real investigative work instead of following the rubbish press releases that are churned out by governments around the world. Get real, do your job properly and don’t regurgitate propaganda. Scientific journalism is at least is based on confirmed documentation rather than wishful thinking.
     

  • Margaret

    The system is broken: abuse of power and lack of accountability is rife in both politics and journalism.  We cannot prop up this system because of the fear of what might replace it.  Neither politicians nor journalists are telling the public what we need to know.  Anyone that can step into this void in any way is welcome.  If we allow things to continue the way they have been, politicians will bankrupt and ruin us while journalists distract us with tabloid stories.

  • http://twitter.com/AntonyREvans Antony Evans

    I’ve read and re-read your piece, and here is the executive summary: “Leaks are great and all that, but let me get in a few cheap digs at Julian Assange and his organisation – because that is the trendy thing to do..”  Because beyond that, you are not saying anything of real substance.

    Leaks are worthless if they not newsworthy. They are not newsworthy unless they reveal criminal or duplicitous behaviour. The solution to the perceived “harm” or “risks” of leaks, is for governments and organisations not to engage in criminal or duplicitous activity. If that is Utopian, fine. Utopia might not be achievable, but it is the direction all societies have to aim towards to avoid corruption, tyranny and endless war. The solution is not for whistle-blowers to clam up.

    As for poor Bradley Manning, well, if he was the leaker and the Lamo tapes are to be trusted, there is not much Wikileaks could have done about the “management of his future”. But I’m pretty sure that he is delighted with the global impact his leaks have had under the management of Wikileaks.

    So welcome to a growing band of journalists chewing on sour grapes. Wikileaks: You can knock it, but you can’t even begin to rival it.

  • Llsidi

    This author assumes for a fact that Manning was the source. Where does he get his information? From a psychologically challenged person called Adrian Lemo who had chat logs that he could have written himself for all we know? From US prosecutors who desperately need a culprit? This author and article is biased, obviously. Hot air, nothing more.

  • Anonymous

    Oh dear, where to start? Well, here goes:

    Firstly, Manning is the alleged source of the documents. Naming him as the WikiLeaks source without this caveat strengthens the overriding narrative that assumes Manning’s guilt and therefore diminishes his chances of a fair unprejudiced trial. Like anybody else who has not been convicted of a crime, Manning deserves to be presumed innocent, even by Sam Sole, who claims to know a thing or two about media manipulation and journalistic standards.

    Secondly, the insinuation that Wikileaks have failed in their duty of care for Manning is dishonest. Wikileaks’ systems are designed to ensure that leakers’ identities cannot be known. Even Wikileaks’ detractors, such as former staffer Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who have debunked other myths around the organization, have confirmed this fact. If the evidence that is available in the public domain is to be believed, Manning revealed himself to Adrian Lamo (http://firedoglake.com/merged-manning-lamo-chat-logs/) who in turn informed US authorities. And that’s a big if, as Lamo who has a history of mental health problems (http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/05/lamo/) has been making conflicting claims about the content of the chat logs and may not be a reliable source of information.

    Thirdly, Assange has stated that he had concerns about the effect the publication of the diplomatic cables might have on the situation of the rightly or wrongly accused Manning. However, he was not in a position to delay publication, as The Guardian and New York Times had decided to go ahead and publish the cables without Wikileaks’ permission (http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/mediagrid.htm – Assange interview: 13:57). This latter fact has been confirmed by reporters from Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,742163,00.html) Also, Assange made the point that the cables had to be published eventually, otherwise the US government would have effectively been holding Manning as a hostage to prevent the publication. This mechanism can currently be observed in the situation of Rudolf Elmer who passed discs allegedly containing Swiss banking data to Wikileaks and has been in jail ever since (http://www.timesnow.tv/The-Julian-Assange-Interview/articleshow/msid-4371553,curpg-4.cms)   

    Fourthly, Sam Sole may find the notion of ‘scientific journalism’ quaint, but I suspect that just like me, many readers have found it enlightening to see how different papers have reported identical source material. The excessive redaction of sources by both the Guardian (http://wlcentral.org/node/1480 ; http://wlcentral.org/node/1490) and the New York Times (http://rt.com/news/wikileaks-revelations-assange-interview/) has certainly given me a fresh perspective on the standard of reporting in these two papers.

    Fifthly, regarding Wikileaks agenda and the potential damage of leaks to open societies: Here Sam Sole would do well to remember that it was not just Wikileaks but the media partners (all of them news organizations with impeccable standards or so they would claim) who judged that the material was in the public interest and should be covered in their newspapers and magazines. So while Sole may claim that it is correct to “view Assange […] as being engaged in an attack on ‘the system’ itself”, all the media partners are equally complicit. They selected the newsworthy cables and redacted them for publication, so they must shoulder an equal amount of any praise or blame for the “blows against the US Imperium” and the “consequences [of] these blows”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harvey-Mundane/100001370183762 Harvey Mundane

     Just another feeble attack by a ‘journalist’ who is scared of real journalism. Or a journalist that is just scared. The truth is that most media outlets have been failing the public and have just become stenographers for governments. I just read a good novel – one of the characters is a whistle-blower – it is very revealing of the world we live in. https://mybeautifulracist.wordpress.com/https://mybeautifulracist.wordpress.com/

  • PeaceLove

    “The journalist will usually have much more experience of this danger than the source and will have to take some responsibility for helping to protect that source.”

    Perhaps you don’t understand the nature of Wikileaks? They set up a truly anonymous system in which they themselves DO NOT KNOW the identity of their sources. That’s the whole point. Perhaps you want them to have a more stringent warning on their page: “BTW, don’t go bragging about your leaks to unreliable ex-con hackers with strong government ties.”

     “…the penalties for disclosure [in China or Russia] so much more severe.”
    More severe than a year of torture through solitary confinement before any conviction, as has been faced by Bradley Manning? I’d say the U.S. government is doing it’s best to emulate those great totalitarian states through fear, intimidation and torture.

    “To believe that the exercise of power can be somehow cleverly cut off from the pursuit of secrecy is to misunderstand the nature of power and social organisation itself.”

    That’s a surprising statement coming from a journalist, whose job is to bring transparency to powerful governments and corporations. The modern viewpoint embodied by Assange and his supporters is that secrecy inevitably becomes the oppressive tool of these self-anointed elites. A modern society should avoid the “exercise of power” and instead work to decentralize power and give it back to the people with a new, truly transparent and democratic system. 

  • Anonymous

    This article shows an incredibly foxy way to pledge allegiance to the State, and exemplary meekness camouflaged with a pretense on independent thinking (the obvious self-illusion).
    The coquettish Mr. Leigh (Guardian) will be elated.  
      

  • Susi2

    First why on earth did u delete my post? 

    When did Assange claim that leaking is easier in unjust societies? I guess he meant that it is easier in a world connected through a global internet!  And WL DID have more effect in the Middle East by outing dictators and confirming to the people that the US shared their view of corrupt politicians!

    By the way it was and remains Lamo who betrayed Manning to the authorities and NOT Assange!

  • Alex

    The photo of Sam Sole at the top of the page shows him donning a ginormous moustache. That photo alone is enough to discredit this already terribly dull and poor article by a journalist who fails to see the nature and purpose of wikileaks

  • Disappointed

    Don’t confuse Sam Sole with a journalist.  When I was in elementary school, I was punished for writing one sentence paragraphs.  If I had only known then that I could have claimed to be pursuing a career in journalism (defined in the loose sense).  You should learn to back up your claims with other sources. 

    It is clear that 99% of people’s knowledge of what is in the Wikileaks
    data will come from these mediated sources, not from the raw data.

    Because Sam Sole statistical analysis says it is.

    This article is simply a poorly written piece for narcissistic purposes.

  • Anonymous

     who says they do not a right to exist, with all the b.s corruption round here, we need wikileaks!

  • Death_sammy1995

    People of Japan…… I feel so sorry for the disaster happened to you. But someone should speak the truth “who is behind this???”. Do not even think or believe that, “it is a natural disaster”. Near Haiti US Marin had run the same test with powerful nuclear weapon which caused massive destructive Earthquake in that country. Immediately President of Haiti accused American Vulture Navy for this crime. People of Japan, please have a look at the source of the earthquake, isn’t it near your power house? Obviously if some one wants to destroy your country should hit the power plant first. This is a pre-planned strategic destruction US has planned against Japan, being jealous of your prosperity they used their mass destructive weapon in the ocean bed. They planted this weapon in the ocean bed using the submarine of US Marines (as they had been successful with the test on Haiti). Now who is there to put this conspiracy on International court against US?  Also International court is controlled by them. US is now losing in their economy. So they are trying to destroy other rich countries Economy like Japan’s. Japan and other prosperous countries like China should be careful of US conspiracy and strengthen their Defense system. Otherwise US will be playing with their fate as they are playing with Arab countries. Also pay attention at this specific type of stealth weapon they are using. Some high-tech defense system has to be invented to stop this type of MASS DESTRUCTION.      

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